Wednesday, January 14, 2015

#31 - The Cosby Concept

As a very young child at the beginning of the 1970's, I remember life being more or less one big laugh after another.

This is selective memory, of course. there was a lot of heavy non-laughter in my young life, as there is for everyone. My most vivid memories, though, seem to highlight the crazy, the wild, the humorous, and the amusing.

I was one of five kids, in a household out of control. My parents seemed at a loss. It wasn't just us three brothers. My two sisters contributed to the craziness as well. We lived in a medium-sized house on Lake Sammamish, about 20 miles from Seattle. When my sister Keren and I decided to find out what lake water felt like during freezing December temperatures, my Mom wisely stayed quiet. Keren and I changed into swim suits, opened the front door and ran down to the beach. We knew we were doing something ridiculous. That was the whole point of it. Be ridiculous.

We also knew, vaguely, that what we were doing was stupid, but we wanted to learn just HOW stupid it was first hand. We didn't want to take some grown-up's word for it. We had to go down to the freezing water and get in. So we did. It was COLD. It was FREAKIN' COLD! We ran in as far as we could before instantly screaming and running back up to the house. My mom just seemed amused. she probably thought we had learned our lesson. We had, but the lesson had two parts to it; first, yes, we learned never to run into a lake in the middle of December. (I mean, it was freakin' COLD!) Second, though, we learned that on some deeper level, it was damn good fun to flaunt our ridiculousness for all the world to see. Who else in either my school class, or my sister's, could brag that they had gone swimming in the freezing lake in the middle of December? It was a cocky brag because we both knew it was untouchable in its credibility.

Into this laughter-filled childhood world, came a performer of unusual and brilliant charm. I don't remember which album entered the house first. There were several; "Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow...," "I Started Out as a Child," "Revenge," "Why is there Air?" I don't even remember the comedy bits anymore. My memory is like an impressionist painting of moments. Cosby's voice playing characters, telling stories from childhood, making me laugh with his creative, magical stories. We couldn't see the performance. We could only listen to Cosby's voice, but that was enough. It was eye-opening.

When "Fat Albert" came along it was a natural must-see for a while.

Life as a child is always in flux, though. Each year brings a whole world of new interests and new fascinations. I don't remember losing interest in "Fat Albert." I just know that it was on my radar for a while, and then it wasn't anymore.

I became a teenager and wanted edgier fare. My comedy needed some bite to it. Before "Bill Cosby,: Himself," came along in the early 80's, I had become a loyal fan of ground-breaking comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor. I didn't expect much from "Himself." I remember watching it with my girlfriend, though, who did not have the same Cosby background that I had. To her, Cosby was just some guy. To me he was THAT guy, the guy from my childhood, the kids guy, the brilliantly funny kids guy.

"Bill Cosby: Himself" was a masterpiece. Unlikely as it seemed, my girlfriend and I were won over. We watched many episodes of "The Cosby Show" together, losing interest maybe three seasons in, as life provided - again - edgier fair.

Cosby was "Cosby." He wasn't just a performer, or a celebrity. He was a concept. Cosby epitomized 'safe' middle class classiness. Uncontroversial, rooted to daily life, and still creative and brilliant.

Life went on.

A year or two ago, I happened to catch Cosby, now in his 70's, on Jimmy Fallon (The Late Show, before Fallon took over the Tonight Show). It was a fascinating performance. Cosby for some reason ended up sitting on the floor, doing stand-up from a previously un-tried position. Then as his age began to take over, he began to improvise (it had to be improvised) about how, at this age, you should never get down on the see, because you might never be able to get back up. Fallon got down on the floor next to him and they conducted the most unusual, hilarious interview I'd seen on late night television.

I felt comforted afterwards. Maybe Cosby was not the number one influence in my life, but he was there. He was deep in my psyche, going back to childhood, and it felt comforting to know that he was still COSBY in old age.

When the avalanche of sexual allegations poured down on him, from more than a dozen women, recently, allegations of disturbing, secretive, predatory behavior, dating all the way back to the 1970's, I needed some time to process what was happening.

As a society we sometimes respond to celebrity scandals with ever-shifting double standards. Sometimes we are ready to drop a favorite celebrity instantly. Other times we forgive or we wait patiently, allowing for the presence of uncertainty to weigh on our judgment.

Michael Jackson's child abuse allegations are a case in point. I had little patience for Michael Jackson after that episode, Yet many fans held tightly to the lack of a legal conviction, and gave him continuing support, respect and love until his untimely death.

I lost faith in Bill Cosby fairly quickly, and surprisingly (surprisingly for me, anyway) easily. It was a sad moment. Cosby meant something to me. Yet, I had little trouble wrapping my head around the concept of that near-perfect middle-American ethos, hiding dark, disturbing, criminal secrets. It made sense in that it didn't seem at first to make any sense at all.

Perhaps the 'Cosby thing,' that too perfect image, was so powerful that behind the scenes, deep in his own heart, he believed he had carte-blanche in the world.

Cosby has not been proven guilty of anything....yet. In a criminal sense, he is innocent until proven guilty. One wants to be fair and give him the benefit of the doubt until something as conclusive as a court judgment either convicts or acquits him.

Even without that, though, the weight of the allegations, the number of women, the manner in which they came forward, collectively and individually, make it impossible to maintain faith in either Cosby as a person, or 'the Cosby concept' as a cultural ethos.

Chris Rock said "We lost Cosby this year," even though Cosby is still alive.

Chris Rock is right. We lost Cosby. The Cosby influence in our culture - and it was huge - is dead. Or it is dying. It is terminally ill.

It is a sad passing, because, as Cosby titled one of his early albums, I started out as a child.
-Peter Wick
January 14, 2015